(Nick Anderson had a strong game, but his final six minutes were rough)
In 1995, the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets met in the NBA Finals. For the Rockets, it was a chance to win consecutive championships; for the Magic, it was a chance to win the first of hopefully many titles with Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. In Game 1, the two teams met at the Orlando Arena and produced what might be the greatest Game 1 in NBA Finals history. And yet, it was a player's failure that proved to be the defining moment.
The Magic jumped out to an early advantage. With 3:30 left in the second quarter, Orlando held a commanding 56-36 lead. Both teams had gone through long, tiring series just to get to the finals, but it appeared that the younger Magic had all the endurance in the world.
The experienced, older Rockets fought back. A barrage of threes by Clyde Drexler, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, and Kenny Smith erased the deficit and gave Houston the lead. Smith was the hottest of all of them, hitting a finals-record five threes in the quarter. "In the second half I was getting nothing but open shots," Smith later said. "It all goes back to the way they have to double-team Hakeem. It makes it easier for everybody."
By the time the third quarter had ended, Houston had put up 37 points and was now leading it, 87-80.
It was then Orlando's turn to make a comeback. Sparked by the bench play of Brian Shaw, Orlando went on a run and reclaimed the lead with a little over seven minutes left. With 1:17 to go, Shaquille O'Neal put in a short floater to give Orlando a 110-107 lead. On the Rockets' next possession, O'Neal pulled the chair out from Hakeem Olajuwon, who had been trying to back his way to the basket. Hakeem fell to the ground and was called for traveling, giving Orlando the ball with 56.6 on the clock.
The Magic would miss their next two shot attempts but, fortunately for them, they were rebounded by a fellow Magic player. The second miss was picked up by Orlando superstar Penny Hardaway, who kicked it back out to Nick Anderson. Anderson was promptly tied up with 10.5 seconds left, the team still nursing a three-point lead.
Anderson, who was the first player ever drafted by the Magic, then went to the foul line, needing just a single make to ice the game and secure the win for Orlando. He had been playing well and was a dependable 70% foul shooter. But Anderson overshot both free throws and was lucky to have the ball tapped back to him on the second miss. Anderson was again fouled, this time with 7.9 to go.
Anderson again stepped to the line, knowing that he had been given a second chance. But like his first two free throws, Nick continued to overshoot and missed yet again. To the astonishment of the Orlando crowd, Anderson then shot and missed his fourth free throw in a row, and this time, the ball was tapped out to a Houston player. The Rockets called timeout with 5.9 seconds left -- thankful to still have a thread of life.
"I think I thought about it, more than anything, when I missed the first two," Anderson said after the game. "I thought, 'What's going on?' I haven't missed four free throws in a row in who knows when. So I think it was more mental than anything."
Had Orlando gone on to win the game, Anderson's misses would have been mere footnotes. But on the Rockets' next possession, Kenny Smith pump-faked Penny Hardaway, got him up in the air, and knocked down the game-tying three from the top of the arch with 1.6 seconds left -- tying the game at 110. The three was his seventh of the game, setting a new record for threes in a finals game and tying the record for threes in a half (six).
"I knew I didn't have a lot of time, so I just tried to get him up in the air and put it up," said Smith, who had 23 points and nine assists. "Again, though, that does not happen if they don't double Hakeem in the post. Penny had to come out on me late, and I had a chance to think about what I was going to do."
The game went to overtime, where the Magic seemed rattled after blowing a golden opportunity to win. Robert Horry hit a pair of tough, long-range threes that gave the Rockets momentum, but Orlando still managed to keep it close. With 8.6 left in OT, Dennis Scott took the ball out of bounds with Houston leading, 118-115. He inbounded it to Shaquille O'Neal, who immediately dished it back to Scott. By then Dennis had waltzed up to the three-point line, and though he had only made two of his previous nine shots, he was open enough that he got nothing but net -- again tying the score at 118. Houston called timeout.
On the Rockets' next and final possession, the ball was put in the hands of Clyde Drexler -- their midseason pickup who was searching for his first championship ring. Drexler drove to the basket and attempted to convert on a finger-roll; his shot was off, but the ball caromed to the left side, where Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon batted it in with his right hand, giving the Rockets a 120-118 lead with only three-tenths of a second remaining. The Houston players began to celebrate, knowing that Orlando's chances of scoring with that little time was virtually impossible.
"Clyde did a fantastic job by penetrating, and I had the inside position," Olajuwon said. "When I tipped it in, it was so quiet that I didn't realize the basket was in."
(Olajuwon tips in the winning bucket with 0.03 seconds to go.)
Orlando couldn't convert on their final attempt and the Rockets came away with the win. 120-118. It was a heart-breaking defeat for the Orlando Magic, who were mere free throws away from victory, and a phenomenal comeback by the Houston Rockets.
"It's very difficult to lose a game like that," said Hardaway. "When you're up by 20 points, you do not expect a team to come back and take over like they did."
"We showed a big heart tonight, but let me also say that we were very fortunate to come away with the win," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "It was just a great, clutch win for us."
Orlando center Shaquille O'Neal had a fantastic game, producing 26 points as well as 16 rebounds, nine assists and three blocks. Olajuwon's numbers (31 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four blocks) weren't as gaudy as Shaq's, but he hit the shot that counted the most. Clyde Drexler scored 23 while Horry and Elie chipped in with 19 and 18. Houston's starters scored all but six of their points. Penny Hardaway had 26 while Horace Grant chipped in with 15 points and 16 rebounds.
Never had more threes been taken in a finals game. The Rockets made 14 of 32 three-pointers while the Magic sunk 11 of their 30 attempts -- both broke the old records for threes made and attempted in a game, which had previously been at 10 and 22 respectively. The combined 25-for-62 shooting was also a combined record for most threes made and attempted.
No one's stats meant more, however, than Nick Anderson's. Anderson had an all-around great game: 22 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals -- and with 50 minutes played, he had been on the floor longer than anyone. But he missed all four of his chances that could have iced the game and given Orlando the win. It was his 0-4 that dominated his stat-line.
"If he makes those, I think we win the game. But it certainly wasn't Nick's fault that we lost," said Orlando coach Brian Hill. "We just made too many mistakes, especially late in the game, and it caught up with us."
Anderson, to his credit, did not shy away from the reporters, who he knew had labeled him as the goat. "If that situation comes up again, I'd want to be there," he said. "I rushed them. But I'm strong up top. I'll move on."
The Magic didn't recover. They got crushed in Game 2 and lost a pair of close ones in Game 3 and Game 4. Before anyone could bat an eye, the Rockets had swept the Magic and won the championship. Who knows how the series would have gone had Orlando won the first game, but in many people's eyes, it was their devastating defeat in Game 1 that set the tone for the rest of the series.
The Magic never panned out like they were supposed to. Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O'Neal were only 23 years old when the series ended, but Shaq spent just another year in Orlando before bolting to L.A. The Magic sunk to mediocrity and Anderson, who had assured reporters that he could come back from his mistakes, had trouble fulfilling his promise. Anderson's previously-solid foul shooting got worse than ever and he never again shot above 70% from the foul line. In 1997, things got so bad that the shot a horrendous 40.4% from the line -- a percentage even lower than Shaquille O'Neal's worst season average. He even consulted a psychologist in the hope of recuperating his game.
"I had never doubted myself in any way on the basketball court," Anderson recalled, "but the following year I lost my confidence; I lost my aggression. I started telling myself I was going to miss shots instead of thinking I was going to make them."
When Chuck Daly became Orlando's coach, Anderson at least got his free throw numbers up to the 60's. Orlando trolled on for a few more years with Penny, Anderson, and Horace Grant leading the team. But in 2000, there was a shakeup in management. Chuck Daly retired. Everyone on top of everyone was traded in a systematic effort to dismantle the team and start from scratch. Anderson wound up in Sacramento while Grant went to Seattle and Penny went to Phoenix. Anderson's time away from the Magic did not suit him well; he shot 48.7% from the line in 2000 and played in only 36 games from 2001 to 2002. When he retired, he was Orlando's all-time leader in points, games, minutes, and steals; nonetheless, he could never step away from infamy of missing those four free throws.
Ironically, Anderson was briefly a teammate of the man who wound up beating his team in Game 1. In December 1996, the Magic signed free agent Kenny Smith, who had been released in the offseason by the Rockets. Smith lasted three weeks and played six games with the team before being waived. Kenny then signed a contract two weeks later with the Denver Nuggets, who he played with for the rest of the season. The following year, he began a successful career as an analyst for TNT's Inside the NBA.